Image credit: KathrynHatashitaLee

Five ways provinces can drive climate policy forward in Canada

Will 2023 be the year we finally see federal and provincial governments acting together on climate?

This opinion piece ran in the Toronto Star on February 12, 2023.

Whether it’s healthcare, childcare, or climate change, major policy advances in Canada’s federal system require federal and provincial governments rowing together—or we just end up going in circles. And while 2022 saw big advances on climate policy in Canada, they almost all came from just one order of government.

Provinces and territories will need to step up this year, or risk jeopardizing climate progress, undermining their own competitiveness, and missing opportunities to make energy more affordable.

It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, provinces and territories were climate leaders, while the feds lagged. Alberta set the model for industrial carbon pricing. British Columbia pioneered its carbon tax, Quebec and Ontario their cap-and-trade systems. Both B.C. and Quebec enacted sales targets for electric vehicles. Nova Scotia worked towards clean electricity, and Saskatchewan took an early lead in adapting to climate change.

Meanwhile, Canada’s isn’t the only boat in the water. With the Inflation Reduction Act and its generous climate provisions, the U.S. has left us in their wake. Across the world, the wave of clean energy policy, technologies, and markets is building. If provinces don’t dip their oars in soon, they risk seeing their economies swamped.

Here are five things provinces and territories can do to get back in the race.

  1. Take on climate accountability.

First, provinces and territories should embrace climate accountability. Federally, net zero accountability legislation has been a game changer that’s forced the federal government to report progress sector-by-sector and roll out policies to deliver the needed reductions.

Some provinces have modeled climate accountability, too. B.C. regularly provides updates on progress, and has embedded climate and clean growth objectives in severalministers’ mandates. Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have similar structures and processes.

  1. Plan for bigger, cleaner, and smarter electricity and more affordable energy overall.

Clean electricity will be the backbone of net zero transitions in every region, but so far, electricity utilities aren’t planning or building that future. Provinces have a role in electric federalism: setting clear direction for utilities and regulators through net zero energy plans and introducing policies to drive electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry. Done right, these changes will make energy more affordable for Canadians.

  1. Embrace smart carbon pricing.

Pan-Canadian carbon pricing is a powerful driver of low-carbon investment, and is becoming critical for competitiveness, providing the policy certainty investors need. Alberta, for example, has just committed to steadily increasing its benchmark price of carbon for big emitters to $170 per tonne by 2030, matching the federal government—a smart move that gives industry a clear planning horizon. The result will be more dollars flowing into low-carbon projects. Other provinces should follow Alberta’s lead. Provinces should also adjust industrial carbon pricing systems to ensure carbon credit markets are robust.

  1. Define regional adaptation strategies.

From B.C.’s heat dome to Hurricane Fiona, climate damages are already accelerating, and if provinces don’t prepare, those impacts will only increase. The federal National Adaptation Strategy is a great start in mobilizing attention and resources toward that preparation, but ultimately, climate damage is local, and so is adaptation: provinces need to be at the table.

  1. Row together across allof these issues.

Accountability systems work best when both senior orders of government are tracking progress. Building a clean, affordable, future-fit electricity system is easier if provinces connect their grids and leverage each other’s strengths, whether it be plentiful sun and wind or on-demand hydro. Carbon pricing works best when it sends uniform, consistent incentives across Canada. And smart adaptation requires mainstreaming adaptation all through government decisions, at multiple orders.

In short, Canada needs a coordinated effort across all orders of government, not just because that’s the best way to achieve climate goals, but because it’s the best way to build a more secure, more affordable, more prosperous Canada, across every province and territory.

It’s time for provinces and territories to get back in the race.